- Lost In Translation: Abraham Joshua Heschel's "Heavenly Torah"—A Review Essay
My first encounter with Abraham Joshua Heschel was with the third volume of his Hebrew book Torah min HaShamayim BeIspaklaria shel HaDorot [henceforth: TMS] published posthumously by the Jewish Theological Seminary.2 I started studying TMS on my own during my studies in an Orthodox yeshiva in Israel, and discovered that to my peers and teachers Heschel was not considered an important figure in contemporary Jewish thought. I had to purchase the rest of the volumes on my own, since this book—although rich with erudite discussions on Aggadic literature—was not to be found in the yeshiva's library.
When I began to delve seriously into Parts I and II of TMS, I was astounded by the richness of Jewish sources presented by Heschel. There is more than one way to think and behave as a devoted Jew. There is more than one way for a traditional Jew to relate to the Sabbath or perceive God's providence, and this was the case even in the time of the Sages.
Heschel's exposition of two conflicting schools of thought in rabbinic Judaism, Rabbi Akiva's and Rabbi Yishmael's, was not always convincing. Sometimes Heschel bent sources to fit his thesis, and sometimes he quoted sources at length with no apparent conclusion. But his general point was clear: Judaism is pluralistic, and you have to make your own choices. Heschel seemed to be telling me to pay no heed to what the Orthodox establishment was trying to preach to me or conceal from me. So the study of Heschel seemed to me a subversive act at the time.
Although I was fascinated by Heschel's poetic Hebrew style and his theological ideas, I wasn't drawn to his major English works until I started studying Jewish philosophy at the university. In his English [End Page 405] writings, Heschel's style seemed emotional, poetic, and simplistic. Heschel spoke of God in an intimate style, as if He were actually present in his thoughts, and demanding the reader to appreciate nature and do Mitzvot. I was not convinced that his thought was relevant to the religious issues that we confront in Israel. It was all too American for me.
One could rightfully claim that Heschel did not intend his philosophy for the Israeli audience in the first place. His seminal works were all written in English, and perhaps his primary goals were to fight Jewish assimilation and strengthen modern Jewish identity in America, rather than to appeal to the Israeli public.3 But if this is true, why did Heschel write this major work in a dense and nuanced Hebrew, inaccessible to the American Jewish public? Was TMS an embodiment of his English theological writings, or a scholarly study of rabbinic literature?4 Assuming there is a theological message in TMS, is there a difference between its message and that of Heschel's English works?
Answering these questions would involve a good amount of comparison between Heschel's English works and TMS, a task which has not yet been fully achieved.5 But there is a more pressing problem: translation from one language to another always entails a loss of part of the original intent. Moreover, perhaps the very act of translation does injustice to Heschel, a writer who clearly preferred to use different languages for different messages aimed at diverse audiences.6
Not long ago, Rabbi Gordon Tucker completed a long-awaited English translation of TMS entitled Heavenly Torah as Refracted through the Generations. For the first time, the English reader was offered not only a comprehensive translation, but a detailed and systematic commentary on TMS. Tucker is the first scholar to endeavor to seek out Heschel's theological message word for word, chapter by chapter, enabling Heschel scholars to deepen their knowledge and understanding of Heschel. Reviews of Heavenly Torah acknowledge Tucker's contribution, yet they all overlook the problem of translating Heschel's ideas from one language to another.7 In this review essay I shall consider the basic differences between Heschel's Hebrew and Tucker's English, incorporating insights on Heschel...